Spa park structures face decay
Stately bath houses vacant or underutilized
SARATOGA SPRINGS Pieces of colorful history are falling apart in and around the city.
While several buildings and venues in the 2,500-acre Saratoga Spa State Park have been renovated in recent years, a few stately, historic buildings remain vacant or under-used, some in decay.
What will become of the buildings isn’t clear. Officials with the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation say they’re discussing improvements, but would not provide The Gazette with details.
The biggest property is the Roosevelt Bath House No. 2, which stands vacant just south of the park administration building on Roosevelt Drive. The building, opened in 1935, is a mirror structure of the renovated, popular Roosevelt Baths & Spa operated by the Gideon Putnam Resort.
The larger Lincoln Baths on South Broadway in Saratoga Springs, once an enormous mineral water bath facility with hundreds of water therapy tubs, is used for the state court’s 4th Judicial District administrative offices, state Court of Claims offices, and the state park police but still has about 11,000 square feet of empty space on its upper floors.
The most recent Spa State Park master plan, in 2009, says the first priority is the renovation of the Lincoln Baths building, with plans then including its conversion into a visitor center and mineral water museum. The vacant wings of the Lincoln building would be renovated for lease.
The second priority was renovation of the long-empty Roosevelt No. 2 bath house into park offices, an education and interpretive center and public restrooms.
Alane Ball Chinian, executive director of the Saratoga-Capital Region District of the state parks system, said discussions are very preliminary.
“In addition to master plan recommendations, we’re exploring opportunities to expand park services into the Lincoln and Roosevelt bathhouses, such as a partnering with providers of health and wellness services,” Chinian said in an email.
“This park has a rich history steeped in the healing properties of the mineral waters found here. A renewed appreciation of the healing arts is sparking new possibilities to sustain these impressive historic structures for the future,” she wrote.
The Saratoga Spa State Park, with the encouragement of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, was built during the Great Depression, its construction funded by federal New Deal money.
The Lincoln Bath House was opened in the late 1920s, before the Depression, but the two Roosevelt bathhouses, with private mineral bathrooms, were part of the 10-building complex built during the early- to mid-1930s.
Today, the vacant Roosevelt bath house No. 2 has paint peeling off its doors and windows and rust shows through the ornate doors, screens and window frames. Through the front entrance doors and windows, you can see the beautiful marble floor with an inlaid circular design, but the floors are dusty and dirty. A large glass chandelier with some of its bulbs missing hangs above the foyer.
The exterior covered marble walkway that extends across the front of the building has plaster peeling from its interior ceiling although much of the brickwork appears in relatively good condition.
The condition of Roosevelt No. 2 is in stark contrast to the Roosevelt Baths and Spa (originally bath house No. 1) across the way. That building was renovated and reopened in 2004, then renovated again, to the tune of $1 million, in 2009 by Delaware North Inc. The marble floors shine, the foyer is inviting and bright, and the 42 reconditioned mineral water bathtubs in private rooms are a popular attraction to people staying at the Gideon Putnam Resort in the park as well as residents of the Capital Region.
Julia Stokes, who was executive director of the Saratoga-Capital Region District of state parks from the late 1980s and through the 1990s, said the No. 2 Roosevelt Bath House has had many uses over the years. “They tried almost everything in that building,” Stokes said.
During and shortly after World War II the bathhouse was used as a veterans’ rehabilitation facility. Later it housed offices and workshops, but it has been empty for at least 20 years.
A portion of the hallways in Roosevelt No. 2 were used in scenes for the 1998 movie “The Horse Whisperer,” directed by and starring Robert Redford, Stokes said.
Commenting on the Lincoln Bath House on South Broadway, Stokes said the exterior of the building was restored in the mid-1990s but there was always a problem with that building’s flat roof that required regular maintenance.
She said during her long tenure as deputy state parks commissioner, millions of dollars were spent on the aging infrastructure at the sprawling park.
The park’s landfill was closed, extensive water line improvements were made along with improvements to the roads, picnic areas, golf courses and other park buildings and venues.
Over the years, the old park mineral water bottling plant was turned into the Saratoga Automobile Museum, the Spa Little Theater in the park administration building was been renovated as were the Hall of Springs, the Peerless Pool, the Victoria Pool, the Gideon Putnam Hotel, and the Saratoga Performing Arts Center.
The park master plan focuses on the under-used buildings in the park, among its many recommendations.
Heather Mabee, chairwoman of the Saratoga-Capital Region Parks Commission, said renovating the Roosevelt Bath House No. 2 and the Lincoln Bath House is something her group would love to see happen. The commission is made up of unpaid, appointed members who advise the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation on projects and issues affecting regional parks and historic sites. Mabee said the holdup on these projects is finding the money for them.
In recent years, especially after 2008, state funding for parks was reduced because of the recession. In the past two years money for parks has been more abundant.
Mabee said in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s budget for 2013-14 a total of $90 million has been included for capital projects in parks across the state. The state Legislature has not yet approved the new budget but Mabee is hopeful the capital money for parks will remain and a portion of it will come to the Saratoga-Capital Region District.
Mabee said the regional parks officials and commissioners propose projects but those dealing with health, safety, and needed maintenance come first.
One of the long-vacant buildings on the park grounds is the LaTour House, an 1880s farm home near the state tree nursery and adjacent to a portion of the park’s 18-hole golf course.
Mabee said during her 17 years on the regional state park commission many different uses for the LaTour house have been proposed, including working with the private sector to restore and use the building. But nothing has become of the discussions.
The park master plan recommends that the roof of the LaTour House be repaired and the building mothballed for some future use.
Stokes said the LaTour house was in “really, really rough shape” the last time she saw it. The building’s porches are falling off, the roof is sagging and windows are broken.
“These are projects we would love to do if we had the funding,” Mabee said.
Morris Peters, a spokesman for the state Division of Budget, said funding for state parks in Gov. Cuomo’s proposed 2013-2014 budget is basically flat compared to the 2012-13 budget.
A total of $276 million is included in the governor’s budget for state parks as compared to $285 million in the 2012-13 budget. But Martin said the decrease is attributable to bookkeeping details and there is virtually no change in the funding for parks.
Two years ago, state parks were required to make 10 percent spending reductions across the board, putting a financial limit on all but the most needed and basic projects.
Funding for state parks in the 2013-14 governor’s budget is consistent with other state agencies. “It maintains service at the current level,” Peters said.
The proposed budget includes no parks staffing cuts.
The Spa State Park master plan says the implementation of the many plan recommendations “will require the investment of tens of millions of dollars of state funds along with additional funding from other public and private sources.”